Dr. Bruce Perry, a renowned neuroscientist in the field of children's mental health and trauma, created a simple sequence that will help you as a parent feel more prepared for a tantrum, and your child feel more supported. This sequence is known as The Three R’s.
It’s helpful to learn this framework through an example. Let’s use a classic one - your child is having a tantrum because you won’t let them have a second piece of cake at a birthday party. Your child’s tantrum may feel embarrassing especially when you’re surrounded by others, so what can you do? First, try your best to ignore the reactions of people around you, and focus on what you can do in the moment rather than what other people are thinking about you and your child.
The Three R’s: Regulate, Relate, Reason
This is where we start. The moment your child starts having a tantrum it’s important to take action to help them regulate, and make sure you’re regulated yourself. It may be helpful to ask your child during a time when they are relaxed, what helps them calm down. Some kids like to have space, some like having their back rubbed or having some water and a snack, it really depends on what helps your child feel best. It’s also important that you as a parent are aware of what helps calm you down so you feel like you can handle the situation. Whether that’s taking some deep breaths or having a glass of water, find what it is that helps you feel regulated.
It may be hard to understand that sometimes your child needs space, and you may be tempted to show affection because that’s what will make you feel better, but it’s crucial to do what feels right for them. In the example of wanting a second piece of cake, maybe your child needs physical touch to regulate, so you spend a few minutes or however long it takes rubbing their back until they start to show signs of calming down. It’s important to limit language in this step, and really use it as a time to let your child process their emotions.
This is where connection comes in. Once you and your child have both calmed down, this is where a calm and soothing dialogue can be introduced through saying compassionate and empathetic things like “I sometimes want two pieces of cake too” or “it can be really frustrating when we can’t have what we want.” This is a really important moment to build those connections with your child and relate to them. If your child doesn’t seem ready to accept dialogue, you can also let them know that you are there when they are ready.
This is the last step of the sequence, and it’s crucial to not jump to reasoning until you have gone through the other R’s. Many times, it’s a natural response to want to reason with your child right away and say things like “if you have another piece of cake your tummy will hurt and you will feel sick.” Trying to reason first will not work as it takes a higher level of thinking, and when a child is completely dysregulated and having big emotions, their thinking brain is not turned on, and your dialogue may cause even more frustration for the child.
After you and your child are regulated, and you have related with your child, then the reasoning can come into play. This is when you can say things like “I don’t want your tummy to hurt and having a lot of cake can make you feel sick.” This is a great time to name the child’s emotions and use this as an opportunity to help your child learn more about their big feelings.
If this sequence was skipped and you just took your child home from the birthday party without utilizing this sequence, the tantrum may have been prolonged and you have missed an opportunity to connect with your child and help them learn and reflect.
The Three R’s can be used any time a child is having a meltdown. To help you remember Three R’s, it may be beneficial to have post-it notes throughout your home that say ‘RRR’ to help jog your memory in times of dysregulation. Having this simple reminder will allow you to feel in control of your emotions, and increase your confidence in your ability to approach the situation at hand. It will take practice to feel prepared in utilizing this approach, but the more you practice implementing it, the more natural and effective it will become.